Wolfing down watermelons

The predators are also fond of grapes, maize and wild berries, besides livestock

March 14, 2020 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

When hungry, the village wolf usually steals through settlements for its prey. Photo: Wiki Commons

When hungry, the village wolf usually steals through settlements for its prey. Photo: Wiki Commons

Indian wolves are the same species that roam across North America and Europe, but they are entirely different animals. Not only do they look dissimilar, being smaller, lankier, and less furry, but they act differently. While the Western wolves symbolise fierce wilderness, many populations of the Indian wolves hang out near humans, a risky strategy for a carnivore. To survive, they rely on camouflage, stealth, and an awareness of humans, says Iravatee Majgaonkar.

In Koppal district, northern Karnataka, wolves lurk around villages and fields set in the black Deccan soil of the valleys ringed by picturesque rocky hillocks. Despite the large canids’ proximity to civilisation, “they have this ability to be invisible especially in peninsular India,” says Majgaonkar. In a landscape with few wild areas where they can thrive free of human disturbance, they often den adjacent to fields.

Beige and blending

Pups appear to be born shy, scooting into their hideouts long before any dog, wolf, or human approaches. Their skill at disappearing is partly due to their beige coats with black highlights that blend with the arid landscape. Majgaonkar witnessed this uncanny trait when she struggled to spot her first wolf even as it trotted across an open fallow field in full sight. “When I finally saw it for about three minutes, it hit me that I was one of the lucky few to see this fascinating creature,” she says. Despite spending two years in the region studying people-carnivore relations and the wolves’ entirely rural lives, she’s seen them on fewer than 10 occasions.

Even residents of the area go about their business unaware of the animals’ presence. Majgaonkar and her team spotted a pair of wolves standing behind bushes, panting in the heat of the day. Not one pedestrian realised the wild animals were less than 100 metres away.

While the wolves of grasslands hunt in packs, spreading out and chasing blackbuck towards an ambush, village wolves usually steal through settlements under the cover of darkness. They don’t have to plan their strategy to get at their livestock prey huddled asleep in enclosures. Occasionally, one blows its cover, going into a killing frenzy inside an animal shed. A shepherd told Majgaonkar two wolves killed 19 sheep in one night. In the old days, this would have been enough to destroy the cornered predators. That remains the official policy for livestock-killing wolves in many western countries. But the aggrieved man let the animals go and claimed ex gratia compensation from the Forest Department.

Watch dogs

To avoid such senseless slaughter, owners use dogs to alert them to wolves. Unlike Western wolves, the Indian ones usually don’t kill domestic canines. They often cross paths with free-ranging dogs as they scavenge from the same sites and drink from the same puddles, although they don’t seem to crossbreed, at least in this area.

Protecting their livestock isn’t the only headache for farmers. They blame wolves for devouring juicy watermelons on cold winter nights. Seeing the remains of fruits strewn in the fields, Majgaonkar thought it was a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps the villagers confused omnivorous jackals with carnivorous wolves. But she realised they were right when she came upon bright red wolf droppings studded with black seeds. Elsewhere, the predators are said to eat grapes, maize, and wild berries.

Despite these aggravations and even though villagers often know the location of dens, they generally leave them alone. “This is not to say that wolves are not under any threat here,” says Majgaonkar. “Their numbers have plummeted and few are left. Nonetheless, they are adaptable creatures, and if given good habitat and relatively low human densities, they will survive.”

All of this highlights that it’s not only Indian wolves that behave differently from their Western counterparts. Indians may be the same species as those inhabiting North America and Europe, but they are entirely different people.

The writer is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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